Friday, October 30, 2009

The Call

One of the oddest things about the way the Good Lord lines up pastors with communities is that it works so very differently than we tend to expect.

My denomination has a "call process," which appears to be most closely modeled on the federal government's approach to hiring. It's an endless cycle of committees and requirements and measures that, taken individually, make sense. There's a good solid reason behind everything we do, and it all seems very official and circumspect. What it results in, though, is frustration for everyone involved...and not sufficiently better results than if folks just looked at a few resumes and made a decision. Call does not work the way we force it to work. It can work through the process, sure. But the two things are not the same.

It also doesn't work in the same way church shopping works. Pastors often ask themselves this key question: Would I attend the church I am serving? The idea behind this is simple. A pastor needs to be excited about their congregation. They need to instantly love it, and be filled with joy at the prospect of it growing and flourishing. If the community isn't a match for them, and they feel out of place or in some way distant, then they're going to stagnate or grow frustrated or be less vested in it's flourishing.

For that love to take place, the argument is simple: The pastor needs to feel that this church is their church. It's the place where they go for spiritual sustenance and fellowship with People Like Them, the place where folks are always glad they came and people are all the same and everybody knows their name.

That does not even come close to describing my church. When I started, my congregation was a tiny struggling group of elderly Anglos. The church was riven with conflict-echoes and despair after a particularly ugly break with the previous pastor. If I'd shown up on a Sunday a lay person...for a vibrant progressive community, one with a heart for Christ and for neighbor, I'd not have sensed it. I'd have felt mostly the aching pain of loss and desperation. As a church product for the savvy consumer, it had little to offer.

Now, my church is bigger, but not by much. Coming in this Sunday, I'd walk in the folks do about once a month...and instantly see that with the exception of the anomalous White Guy up front, it was Not Me. Though it aspires to be multiethnic, it is almost entirely Korean. It is also very, very young...bordering on feeling like a youth group, even though it most certainly ain't. The worship is mostly contemporary, meaning heavy on the Chris Tomlin and Hillsong. It's still a little church rattling around in a big sanctuary. As a shopper for churches, I'd have sniffed it, found the scent unfamiliar, and moved on swiftly, as dozens and dozens have...sometimes before the service is even half over.

But being called to serve a congregation does not work that way. It just doesn't. Nowhere in the great story that runs from Torah through the Epistles can I find any evidence of that. Not a single least, none that mattered...worked that way. Not Abraham or Moses or Jacob, not Isaiah or Jeremiah, not Paul, and most certainly not Christ.

The "process" is not like something an HR department does. It's also not like the market process by which we select consumer products. Call is more...heck...mystic than that. More God-related. It's a work of the Holy Spirit. It's an urging. It's a hunger. It's a strange compulsion driven by dreams and obscure theophanies.

And where that compulsion takes us is to places where everyone is not Just Like Us. Where things are difficult. Where we are forced to grow, and struggle, and grow some more. Where exposure to the Other and the Different makes us realize that what is not familiar is not automatically evil, and that we can come to care deeply and passionately for those who are not already neatly part of our marketing demographic.

As, over the last six years, I have.